The discussion of Britain’s latest tennis nearly man has turned inevitably to the culture of a sport which, in this country at least, remains laughably exclusive. Asked on the Today programme why we fail to produce consistent numbers of good tennis players the tennis evangelist and comedian Tony Hawks (who knows a thing or two about what is laughable) made a good suggestion about opening up our ridiculously expensive (and often empty) courts to the public.
But the debate about tennis reveals a deeper malaise. In this country we are prepared to accept mediocrity because the last thing we would dare tamper with is the class system. There is a difference between elitism and exclusivity. At times on Sunday, it seemed the TV cameras were more interested in the Middleton sisters (the very symbol of the undeserving rich) than the tennis on court. But only genuine elite sportsmen and women get to play on centre court – and in order to get more British players into that arena it is obvious that we need to open up the talent pool. Most sports recognised long ago that you can’t select from the public school system and expect to beat the world. Andy Murray himself is famously the product of the Scottish state school system and the Spanish tennis coaching system.
Tennis is a metaphor for a wider problem. In business and politics we continue to think we need only recruit from the shallowest of talent pools. Again this comes back to a failure to understand the difference between the elite and the exclusive. While it is still effectively possible to buy into the top universities and the top jobs, just as it is possible to buy into the best tennis clubs, we will continue to be run not by an elite but a ‘mediocracy’.
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